Watching Armageddon

What does a Manitoba-born, Toronto-dwelling piano student turned guitar “partisan” have in common with rappers Chuck D and Flavor Flav? Please write in if you can think of something. Nevertheless, Public Enemy is one of the many groups musician Michael Peters cites as influences. “What I love about Public Enemy,” he said, “is they have such a scope to what they were doing; it was so big.”

Despite his admiration, Peters doesn’t sound much like Public Enemy. He’s a singer-songwriter without as folky a sound as the term often connotes. At his most compelling, Michael Peters plays the electric guitar like it’s a harp, plucking more than strumming. This is apparent in particular on his new album’s title track, “Etherized,” which features Peters’s voice at its lowest and an intense yet immediately listenable sound.

It’s hard to describe Etherized as a whole without that predictable fallback in music criticism “ethereal,” so forgive me for being predictable. If one were to pick another adjective ending in “-real” to describe Peters’s music, it would be “surreal.” He gives the impression of one watching Armageddon (the event, not the movie) calmly at a safe distance in his lyrics: the subject matter is epic, but the tone is reflective.

Peters’s interests don’t end with Public Enemy, but they are slightly unconventional for a musician of his type. Not surprisingly, he’s been listening to some classic bluegrass lately. Perhaps more surprisingly, he’s hearing a lot of it for the first time. “In the last couple years, I’ve been listening to more and more bluegrass,” he said, “just to build my repertoire. I love playing bluegrass, but there was just a giant pile of material that I didn’t know.”

This is less surprising when one hears Peters’s approach to pop culture, which he illustrated with movies. “I’m very skeptical of whatever is particularly hot at the moment,” he explained. “If you ask someone three or four years after a movie’s come out and they still say, ‘Oh yeah, it was great,’ then it’s worth watching.” It applies to music, too. “I didn’t like Wilco for years,” said Peters. “All of the sudden, a year and a half ago — started listening to Wilco.”

Peters is devoted to the guitar with a fervor that parallels that of the religious convert. “I’m a real partisan to the guitar. I love guitar unabashedly,” he said. Perhaps this is because he himself is a convert from the piano; he did his Grade 9 in the Royal Conservatory system and was working on his Grade 10. But he’s reluctant to draw a connection between his background and his love of guitar. “I learned a lot from playing piano,” he said, “but at this point, the main thing I appreciate about that is that I can teach piano lessons.” He did note, however, that he had no way of knowing “what it would have been like otherwise.”

Whatever the genre or epoch, it’s feeling that brings Peters’s disparate influences together. “The only music that I listen to is stuff that gives me a certain feeling,” he said, “and the fact that those feelings are similar. [ . . . ] If something gets me excited, it feels kind of the same, regardless of what I’m listening to.” It’s easy to see this in his music. All of Peters’s songs have a different tone, but there is a common feeling to them; again, one both reflective and dramatic.

Peters is quite aware of his leanings, and he says this taste carries over into literature as well. “If I had to pick a favourite book, or a book that I read more than any other book,” he said, “it would be this Russian novel called The Master and Margarita by a guy named Mikhail Bulgakov. One day the Devil and his cadre walk into Stalinist Moscow and proceeds to wreak havoc. [ . . . ] I do incline towards the apocalyptic or hypertraumatic in my tastes.”

Michael Peters is coming home to play the Times Change(d) High and Lonesome Club on March 17, which is also St. Patrick’s Day.